Community action required to improve school test results

Here’s the mea culpa, right up front: I have been among those who have been critical of School District 51 every time it released standardized test scores that showed the district to be less than the state average or when the scores weren’t as good as they had been the previous year.

My voice joined those who demanded better, who said the scores weren’t acceptable. I was among those who said the problem belongs to the school district and it was the responsibility of the district to do something about it. I, too, wanted Mesa County to be just like Lake Wobegon.

The latest test results, released earlier this month, are typical of what they have been for as long as I can remember. They’re incrementally better in a couple of areas. Incrementally worse in a couple. We still generally trail the state average.

For years, those of us who demanded better read way too much into infinitesimal drops in the scores. The district, meanwhile, possibly reacting to the criticism from those who over-reacted to miniscule negative movement, touted tiny increases as proof that everything the district was doing was working.

The result of all of that was that a lot of time that could have been put to better use was instead wasted either criticizing or defending the school district.

This is no brief for School District 51. Certainly the problems with standardized test scores in Mesa County is one that belongs to the school district. But maybe we should realize that it’s not solely the province of the school district to do something about it. In fact, if one takes the time to talk to District 51 administrators, it becomes very clear very quickly that they are serious about student achievement. It’s more than a buzzword.

Educators know, and there’s more than ample data to back them up, that student achievement is closely correlated with socioeconomics. That fact, too, can also be seen every time test scores are released. Schools in the poorer parts of the valley, virtually without fail, perform worse than schools in more affluent areas.

It stands to reason, then, that School District 51 will perform below the state average. Virtually every socioeconomic datum in the county is less than the statewide numbers.

Take your pick: Median household income in 2008 (the latest data I could find) was $54,300. For Colorado as a whole it was $57,200. Per capita income was $18,700. For the state it was $24,000. In Mesa County, 22 percent of the population has at least a bachelor’s degree. In all of Colorado, 33 percent do. I could go on and on, but the point becomes clear quickly. Just as schools with lower socioeconomic indicators will do more poorly than those with better indicators, so too will entire school districts.

Even a retired newspaper editor can see why Cherry Creek School District consistently performs above the state average and Mesa County School District 51 doesn’t.

None of this is to imply that we should give the school district a pass. We shouldn’t, nor do Steve Schultz and his staff want one. They, more than anyone, want our students to do well.

It is to say, though, that the knee-jerkers whose predictable response to any shortcoming of the district is to call for chopping off a bunch of administrators might contribute more to solving the problem if they’d just remain quiet.

For the rest of us who believe there are constructive ways to deal with the problem, the first thing we might do is realize that it’s a problem that belongs to the entire community, not just the school district.

The Grand Junction Forum, a small group under the auspices of the Chamber of Commerce (full disclosure: I’m a member)  is doing just that. They’ve identified education as the key to making a good community even better. They believe that we can’t create a world-class education system by letting the school district do it alone. It will require all of us to get involved in one way or another.

I think you can expect to see some initiatives out of the Forum in the not-too-distant future that, if they work as planned, will result in a lot more people working to help the school district.

Who knows? Maybe someday we really will be the place where, in Garrison Keillor’s words, “all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.”

Denny Herzog is the retired executive editor of The Daily Sentinel. E-mail him at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).


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